If you don't try something ... you'll never know ...

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." Mark Twain

Friday, 11 October 2013

Things to do whilst visiting Canary Wharf

It's over one year now since we've returned to London from Zurich and I'm conscious that I need to wrap up this blog given that I'm now fully ensconced back at Canary Wharf with us having zero plans to head back to live in Thalwil.

It seems fitting that I should write this on the day that we welcome Johan's best buddy from Zurich to come and stay here for a few days, this following me having had two of my favourite Zurich people come stay with us a few weeks back.  Not to mention the kids' favourite people stay the week prior.  

It's great welcoming people to London.  I love this city and all that it has to offer.  Using the excuse to show people around opens up the inner tour guide in me - it's great fun.  So many of us just exist in the place where we live; unaware of all that is around us.  I've got a few 'die hard' suggestions for my guests when they stay with us at Canary Wharf and here they are, and most of them can be done with the children:

Museum of Docklands in London, West India Quay
Open five days per week
On three floors yet packed to the rafters (literally) with all manner of paraphernalia about London's past. It plays upon all your senses.  There is also a great kids play area - Mudlarks, a lovely cafe and a perfectly sized gift shop with items such as books on cockney rhyming slang to historical maps.  Not to mention lovely wooden toys.

Emily dressed as Pippi 

Mudchute Farm and Park
Open five days per week
One of my earlier memories of living on the Isle of Dogs is having horse riding lessons at this farm.  One of the most surreal aspects is being able to look across the fields of English rare breeds and see the Canary Wharf skyline standing proud on the horizon.  Just walking from Canary Wharf along Millwall Dock toward the farm is quite impressive, especially given this now urban sprawl once used to be a thriving port connected to the Thames, used predominantly for timber and grain.

Emily and Patrik feeding the goats

Thames Clippers and a round trip on the Thames
Open five days per week
Taking the boat from Canary Wharf pier can be done after a coffee at Cafe Brera, which sits at the top of the flight of steps overlooking the bend of the Thames.  Once aboard and with a day roamer ticket you can jump off and on at each of the stops on the round tour.  This takes in Tower Bridge (for St Katherine's Dock and the Tower of London), London Bridge (for The Shard and HMS Belfast), Bankside for the Tate and Shakespears Globe Theatre, or Waterloo for The London Eye.  Personally, I like to get off at Waterloo and walk the entire length of the Southbank back to Tower Bridge and walk over the bridge.  There is heaps to take in along this route and plenty of refreshment stops along the way.

A Sunday market day
Head first to the beautiful Columbia Road flower market.  It's relatively small (as far as London market's go) yet it is stacked full of charm.  Each time I go I envisage it being used on a film set for a period drama.  As the name suggests, expect to find flowers and plants.  Although there are an array of other goods for sale mainly in the quaint little shops that line the market street.
Work your way toward Brick Lane and take in a bagel at the famous Beigel Bake - a 24 hour eatery and the oldest beigel shop in London.  Brick Lane has been spruced up over the last decade and you can now find an eclectic mix of goods.  You'll also pass the Old Truman Brewery that often houses a number of exhibitions, so worth checking out.  Whatever you do, don't leave until you've eyed the incredible street art.
You can get to Spitalfields mid way along Brick Lane as you walk south; just take a right along Fournier Street.  There has been a recent regeneration programme which has included the restoration of several of the local historic streets, retailers and restaurants.  You'll find a thriving market with designers and artists selling their wares alongside one another.

From the O2 to Siemens Crystal
There's no doubt about it, the O2 is a fantastic venue where most of the big names want to perform.  However it is also host to an array of eateries and being one stop from Canary Wharf makes a change.  From there you can take the Emirates Airline across to the north side of the river where right next to the stop you'll find the biodiversity centre which is the Siemens Crystal.  Truly impressed with this building and the fascinating exhibits within.  It is great for little and big kids alike.  Plus there's a lovely cafe there too.  You can then jump on the DLR and head back to Canary Wharf, and if you get to the front carriage you can imagine you're the driver for the day.

No trip to London should exclude the wonderful area of Greenwich steeped in history with so much to see, you would need a whole day assigned to it.  From the Cutty Sark to the Observatory at the top of the hill where you can stand in both the eastern and western hemisphere at the same time.  There's a great Sunday market, and some wonderful shops even though some high street brands like M&S and Starbucks have appeared over recent years.  Greenwich Theatre hosts great productions and is a short walk up the hill by the cinema.  The Maritime Museum is also a must-see.  You can get there via DLR, mainline rail, bus or boat.  However why not walk 50 foot under the Thames along the 1,217 feet long foot tunnel - that's an experience in itself.  

Not to mention Canary Wharf itself from the green spaces to the shopping paradise.  During the week it's full of city buzz yet that turns to more relaxation come the weekend.  There's the Idea Store to the Comedy Club, Boisdale for jazz and rum cocktails to the classic and elegant Plateau with fine food and views over Canada Square Park.  The summer sees the park transformed in to an arts venue, along with the adjacent Jubilee Park, and you'll find screenings from the Royal Opera House to Wimbledon tennis.  Unlike New York, Canary Wharf does sleep .. the shops open at midday of a Sunday despite a few cafes opening earlier and even though there are a few worker bees still to be found at their desks at midnight, the majority have switched off to enjoy what's on offer.

Visit:  http://www.canarywharf.com/visitus/ for more information about what's on.

Oh there's so much to see and do in London, and so little time!  

I've really enjoyed writing this blog, which I started up just before I left Canary Wharf for the hills of Thalwil back in 2010.  Thanks for reading.

I've got a new blog so do switch over and follow me there - I'll be posting on a variety of things from places to go, and things to do, and from food to try and books for the kids.  It's not going to be just about London or Zurich yet it will feature both I'm sure.


That just leaves me to turn off the London-Zurich lights ...

Canary Wharf ~ 2013

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Does moving away make things easier?

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August 3rd and here we are pretty much a year after arriving back to London from spending two years living in Zurich.  We'd found the experience pretty difficult for a variety of reasons, and more importantly we missed what we both called 'home'.  Now, having very much settled back in to London living - well it is quite easy to do so - I wonder whether having moved away from Zurich has mad things easier?

It's a fact.  I certainly miss aspects of Switzerland living.  Would I move back there if Johan got a job there?  Perhaps I would although interestingly my only reservation would be whether the kids, now a couple of years older, would fit in to the Swiss-German way of life and more so the language.  For me, my German language skills are more than adequate to give me a good foundation to enable me to make the most of things there.  For sure I'd be able to start as I mean to continue and speak a sentence or two to the lady in the Migros cafe and also I'd be able to ask for the bus ticket too, without feeling somewhat nervous to say the least.  I'd be much more confident.

Being back here in Canary Wharf though, life is ... well ... it's easy.  You don't have to remortgage your house to go out for lunch or supper or even to order home food from the supermarket for that matter.  There are eateries of all sorts, open seven days a week, pretty much all around you.   And no, people are not enormous.  Actually I put on weight living in Zurich: the latte, the croissants, not to mention the chocolate which was replaced by cheese and sometimes eaten together.  I'm also told that sleep deprivation (something which I'm still suffering from) doesn't help your metabolism.  I'm still using the latter as justification for my inability to shift all the baby weight.

Saying that, life is not all fun and games here.  Life can sometimes be ultra complicated.  There are naturally many, many more people and everything is so much faster.  People have more expectations and the wonderfully simple things in life are very much forgotten; replaced by materialism and technology.  Having everything 24/7 seems a little unnecessary and whilst we're constantly fed negative press about the economy, government strategies seem all short-term.

Continual terrorist threats.  Security everywhere (not that I'm complaining about the security) yet unknown immigration figures.

There's a continued reluctance to go ahead with ID cards.  There's hypocrisy everywhere.  Take the local Tower Hamlets council pushing through the City Pride development plan to have the social housing in a separate part of the borough.  How can they get away with that?  Another example of rules being bent, or broken.  If the government officials can do it, well of course the layperson can.

Take the speeding cameras.  There's no warning in Switzerland.  These cameras just get you.  During the start of the school year they have mobile speed cameras too, which circulate around the cantons to ensure drivers take care.  Here you not only have a SatNav warning you, you get a lovely road sign too, and some lines on the road up ahead where you see all the cars slow down.  Of course everyone speeding at 120mph will speed down to 70mph.  It's an opt out society - people will decide whether they want to admit to being wrong or not ... tricky one eh?!?

The laws of the land are not adhered to, the police cars chase around constantly, the police spend too much time on paperwork, yet the pay for public sector services like nurses, police, fire crew and teachers is inadequate to lure people to the professions.  Instead there's reality TV stars and footballers still getting way overpaid.

Ironically kids spend too much time studying and too much time being covered in cotton wool.  There's political correctness, very little respect for authority,  and worst of all a society afraid of speaking out despite this country supposedly being democratic.  There's teenagers getting in to massive debt to go to University and overseas students jumping in by the thousands (underestimation).  There's extra time given to students whose first language is not English (wish that happened to me in Switzerland!) and in many cases a lot of time and money is spent on new rules and regulations to meet local cultural and religious needs.  That's all well and good however with everyone wanting their own thing and with the country not having much identity left, it's very difficult, no matter how hard you try, to integrate.  Everyone is to blame.

There's a government who is trying to please everyone and as a consequence is not able to please anybody.  And whilst there's a beautiful mix of cultures, and religions, and a state school system which now educates as widely as possible there is still a divided society.  There are clear cultural pockets and with that - clear antagonism, jealousy, confusion, uneducated elders.  There is also racism of all sorts and from all sides.  Most of all there is not much identity in this country - there's too much!  So whilst we all enjoy the mix, we haven't got a direction and we're being led along by whoever is the loudest.

Within Tower Hamlets there is also a serious rich and poor divide.   There's an insane amount of building work - towers upon towers - an urban, and suburban jungle.  Where is everyone getting the money from?  There's simply no direction, no cohesion, there's hypocrisy and corruption.  It's a crazy place, this place called London.

But we're here and if you close your eyes to all the crap that's happening (because you really can't do much about it) you can enjoy the buzz.   There's theatre, cinema, plays, ballet in the park, there's pop up restaurants, river cafes, and parks - loads of green spaces and trees everywhere.  Pretty much everything goes although not always to everyones taste!  There's also a great spirit here.  Generally people are decent.  The true Eastenders are great fun, have fascinating stories and will always respond to a 'hello' at the bus stop.  They'll help you with directions and make you feel welcome.  Sadly though it's been reported that there's more chance you'll hear Cockney in Essex these days as most have migrated out.

There's also plenty of sporting facilities too and we're so lucky to have the Olympic stadium just up the road.  Nearby for the kids there's the sailing centre, the rugby, football, swimming, martial arts, boxing, ballet, tap, drama, gymnastics, athletics, you name it.  The Mile End Sports Centre is fantastic - it's quite an inspiration just taking the kids there for a class watching the older kids rock up with their kit, get to the track and let their frustrations out in a race.  Nearby there's the climbing wall and the Go-Kart track.  We've yet to take the kids to either.  Tower Hamlets does also have a strong tradition of support disabled sport and physical activity.   There really is no excuse for a child to be hanging around idling, saying they're bored.  Yet they invariably do.

Other than rush hour (or when, like today, there's a sporting event on - today was the Prudential Bike Ride) when it can take an hour just to get off the Isle of Dogs, it's really easy to get out to the M25 and beyond.  The transport system is pretty good - the tube, the DLR, the buses, the boat (although the service since KPMG took over the Thames Clippers has been DIRE and I so wouldn't recommend that now).

As for me, since being back I've managed to get the website up and running and have been quite busy writing CVs, editing them, writing web biographies and LinkedIn profiles.  I've been really busy with my role of Chair for the Tower Hamlets branch of the NCT too and have recently decided that I will step down at the end of the year to focus on my business.  Of course too, I've been busy looking after the children and their social life which is seriously busier than mine.  I plan their weeks, what they eat, what they need to learn both at school and home and make sure they have what they need in their wardrobe.  I cook from fresh on most days and plan in advance.  This means I source the food (as well as everything else including our new kitchen and my latest toy - the Thermonix).

Then there's the Girly Gang too, which after 20 years plus, I still enjoy running.  It's great to have friends that I can call upon, even for a cup of coffee and a biscuit, who live a stones throw away.  It's also great that I don't have to walk 2km per day up and down hills to get the kids to school and back.  I must admit, I still don't know how I would have coped had we stayed given that the pressure would have been on me to let Emily, aged five, walk to school on her own as they do in Switzerland.  I have a hours pilates class each week, when I can I will get the WiiFit out and do the My Biggest Loser and I will do my best to get out with the girls at least once ever other month.

Most of all, we do have family here - my brother has become Johan's running buddy, my sister-in-law is a great source of parental advice and knowledge, and my nieces have been super lovely.  My Dad tries to visit as often as possible too and that's great.  Johan and I also have time alone together be it for a quiet meal or to fall asleep in the cinema.  We've got a super speedy cleaner who even does the ironing and a wonderful babysitter who feels like part of the family.

I've sold my flat and am still dealing with the estate agent to get back the deposit after the tenants completely ruined most of it (one of the reasons for selling).  As a consequence I've been trying to find something suitable as a replacement investment opportunity but with prices hiking unrealistically high to be sustainable and with a flood of two-beds in the local area, I'm looking at a variety of options now.

So with all this going on, the one thing I don't have now is time to think.  My memory has gone to pot.  My brain often seems scrambled.  I've got a To-Do list as long as my arm and a messy flat that needs organising.  I'm juggling the role of parent, self employed consultant, friend, wife, property investor, and volunteer.  It's very rare for me to get peace and quiet to gather my thoughts, and to get creative.  It's also very easy here to feel inadequate.  There's uber women earning stacks of cash and running corporations whilst having four kids and still managing to get down the gym and put food on the table.  There are too many women like Angelina Jolie around here - super women whom I think are really just robots from Stepford Wives.  So does moving away make things easier?

Well it might not make things easier but it is interesting that's for sure!


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Is it possible for me to miss Thalwil?

A weekend trip back to Zurich thanks to a wedding invitation and whilst the celebration was taking place on the Gold Coast (named that due to the extra hours of sun it receives it day as well as because you technically need more cash to live there, if that is possible) we wanted to go back to Thalwil.  We wanted to make the most of our whistle stop tour and catch up with friends.  Plus we know the area - it's familiar territory.

It was the most beautiful of weddings with a movie star lookalike bride who wore the most intricate lace detailed dress - total fairytale.  Emily called her Princess the entire time.  Ironically the bride's name was Catherine although not the Catherine.  The Scottish influence, thanks to the Groom, meant that we were blessed with the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace, which bought a tear to my eye (actually I don't think there was a dry eye in the church).  The day was long and fun filled.  The kids were obviously running on rocket fuel having got to bed that very morning at 1am due to our flight arrival and were up thanks to Emily's mock cough at 7.30am - you see when Emily wakes, everyone wakes.   So it was a no wonder that mid way through the reception drinks Patrik collapsed conveniently next to the drinks cabinet ...

He was there very comfortably for around two hours.

All in all everybody had a great time especially Patrik when he awoke because he had even more energy!

However our weekend in Zurich meant experiencing the Swiss customs, culture, food, ambiance, architecture and weather.  So did we miss it?

Unfortunately wonderful Swiss International Airlines (or rather Lufthansa who own the show now) managed to mess up our seating and despite us having to input what seemed like reams of data they still couldn't work out that Emily was too young to sit on her own and that having the two kids together alone was also not a good idea.  But thanks to some gentle persuasion we managed to cooperate with other passengers and all sat close enough for it to be sensible.  Either way, not a good start.

The flight was slightly delayed and coming in late both kids crashed out.  Patrik woke at the baggage carousel and decided that he had to push a trolley.  Not good given Johan was carrying Emily and I was pushing the other trolley.  So the most huge of tantrums later (never knew a child could throw up through screaming so much until that point) and we came through arrivals.  No taxi driver to be seen.  We'd used our faithful taxi company too.  Ten minutes later and the gruff chap said 'gruezi' and then walked off to his cab leaving us to follow, pushing pram, carrying children, and generally wondering what had happened to their manners.  It didn't take long for us to look at one another with that mutual understanding look.  To rub salt in the wounds he overcharged us, thinking we were tourists (well we were) and unaware of the normal fare to which we had to them tell him how we'd only moved in August of last year.  Not good.

We were tired, we'd been cheated and we both felt as though we were heading to a sleepy hollow.  That was the start of our weekend.

Thalwil is still Thalwil.  Nothing has changed.  Aside one of my two favourite shops (the other is the brocki in Oberreiden) has now morphed itself from a toy shop/haberdashery store into a ... only can this happen in a place like Thalwil ... pillow shop.  Yes it is now selling pillows.  Fine pillows I am sure with a lovely price tag too.  Either way it was shut for the entire weekend including Monday.  

Actually so too was the shop where I'd promised to take Emily to buy her a Reima (love that brand) rain jacket.  Can't seem to find a local distributor in London for love nor money.  

What could I miss?

Familiarity and charm

Sedartis continue to sell the same food, changing their dinner menu slightly.  Their chairs outside are slightly different but otherwise not one thing in the high street has changed.  

Well ... the promotions in the stores have changed.  In many ways I love that the two major supermarket rivals - Migros and Coop - have their separate ways to lure you to buy more.  Migros give out goodies every so often for children to collect.  It becomes so competitive that it's a parents worst nightmare.  Especially if they're marbles, or stickers, or magnets as I've experienced.  This time they're little spinning tops.  You spend so much money and instead of getting a car parking token like you get in Canary Wharf's Waitrose you get a spinning top.  All very charming but still a carrot to a little innocent child.  Migros on the other hand give out tiny, rather irritatingly so, stickers that you collect and stick on a card.  When you have enough you get discounts on a range of goods.  They've had tupperware, they've had Le Creuset and now they have Alessi.  The adult carrot.  Not sure whether I miss it ... okay ... yes I do miss the charm of it.  Don't think Johan does as rightly so he knows that we would just litter our home with yet more plastic stuff and be tempted to buy things on the cheap that really we don't need.

Food and drink and smells

As we walked along Gotthardstrasse passed the Kolli Beck the waft of sausage hits you like a cloud.  Momentarily it smells good but then it smells of calories.  Not good.  Outside the shop that is laden with chocolate too.  More calories.  I understand why I have gained so much weight since having moved to Zurich.  Not to mention the need to save the kids waste having cooked the foods that only they are supposed to like - carb city - bread, pasta, pasta, pasta, bread, rice, pasta.  There's also the wonderful Latte Macchiato.  All that milk.  And it was at breakfast when I tasted the milk and was reminded of just how wonderfully buttery it is.  You can almost taste the grass and as you drink it there's visions of buttercups in fields where cows roam.  Do I miss that ... oh I could dive in to it but I'm very, very happy to be in a place where I have such a rich variety of cuisines from so many different cultures and pretty much all of them available either to buy in store, to be delivered home, picked up, you name it.  I love the choice we have in London.

The mountain views

The views are beautiful - if you look at them.  Which you can't help but do.  However I've realised that whilst you can't compare the mountains to a dirty, cramped, east end street of London, I do actually like to see the Canary Wharf towers, the cleanliness surrounding them even if it might seem a bit sterile.    I've also realised that whilst busy shepherding my kids wherever they need to go, I don't have time to look at mountains.  I'm lucky if I get a glimpse of my watch (not Swiss I hasten to add)!

Also, what has been created in the surrounding areas of Canary Wharf is really quite lovely.  They've replaced the crazy traffic light roundabout with some wild flowers and there are always wild birds hovering around as can be seen in the photographs I took a few weeks back ...

Just a couple of random ducks in Jubilee Park at Canary Wharf.

Parks and green spaces

Thalwil is quite a big place as Zurich 'suburbs' go.  However I still can't get over just how many green spaces we have here at Canary Wharf; in London too.  Within fifteen minutes I can get to at least five decent green spaces.  Admittedly you might find the occasional dog turd en route (although that has been seen on Thalwil pavements too!), and sadly I could fill at least two black plastic bags with the litter that I'd find on the way.  So whilst the lovely little school playground next to Migros keeps the kids more than entertained (they're not allowed in during the school playground time) it does get a bit laborious trying to find an alternative.

Things to do of a rainy day or of a weekend

If you want to drive out of town and head for a country walk, hike, bike ride, climb, ski, basically anything that comes under the umbrella of outdoor sports then you're fine.  But sometimes you just want to hang out locally and do something locally.  The only problem is, other than the very few parks, the few open cafes or restaurants, there isn't anything to do.  We have stacks of indoor places to head to here and yes, perhaps it's because we have more rain.  But there's also more cultural things - galleries, the Ideas Store, the Docklands Museum, and stacks of indoor games, groups, meets, you name it.  Let's not mention all the very child friendly places to eat and linger.  

The Swiss way of life

I cannot believe I am going to type this but the one thing I do miss are the rules and regulations that ensure the country stays as clean as possible and as law abiding as possible.  We moan and whine about people still driving around talking on their mobile phones,  people who turn a blind eye when litter is thrown out of a car window, criminals who get away with a light sentence and those who get away with it all together because they get through the system and yet there are still so many people here opposed to us having ID cards, those who complain about teachers when it's the kids and parents who are at fault, and basically there is a general lack of respect in authority here.  Not a day goes by where I roll my eyes at a news story.  What worries me most of all is that there is an ageing population with a growing number of uneducated spoilt individuals who have high hopes, who expect something for nothing and who do not have a healthy competitive attitude and who will be left to look after the elderly.  Kids have been protected by cotton wool here, and yet on the same token they have been pushed to be educated earlier.  Everyone is under pressure to compete yet the education system doesn't like to educate the whole concept of winning for fear of ... whatever you want to call it ... not wanting to hurt someone's feelings.  So yes, I do miss the Swiss rules and regulations, their way of life too.  It works.  

The cost of a cup of coffee

It is insanely expensive in Switzerland.  I cannot say more than that.  The house prices are seriously overpriced and with the financial market regulations continuously making changes there has to be a shift and I'm not sure how that will impact upon the housing market.  Otherwise day to day items are so much more than here.  It's even cheaper to buy a bar of Toblerone at London City airport kiosk as you go through into the arrivals lounge than it is to buy it in Duty Free at Zurich Airport.  The cost of a cup of coffee in Starbucks is at least twice as expensive.  But it was lovely to have the chance for a catch up with Helen and enjoy a Migros Latte Macchiato ...

The key thing I miss about Thalwil are the great friends I made.  I really miss our little chats, the ability to just meet up for a coffee or more so a play date with the kids.  

I also miss the cookery classes although as I still organise them I somehow feel like I'm part of them even though I'm not present.  

Thalwil, to me, is so very quiet, calm and relaxing.  It's a great way to unwind.  However after a while, I certainly need to get going ... 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Sustainability at The Crystal

If I hadn't of escaped for an hour yesterday morning to have my first peaceful child free hour in just over a month I would not have read this week's copy of the Wharf and seen the article about Siemens Crystal attracting its 50,000th visitor.  Amazing given that I hadn't even heard of it, despite having unknowingly driven past it on at least a dozen times.  The Crystal - a Sustainable Cities Initiative was launched by Siemens seven months ago and currently hosts the world's largest exhibition on the future of cities.

Today we took the kids there.

Ironically the Docklands Light Railway was not working between Canary Wharf and Canning Town which meant that I had to drive.  As well as using the car unnecessarily it also meant the need to park the car in one of the car parks at the Excel centre, which are unbelievably over priced.  Normally though Royal Dock station is practically opposite.  Public transport is what I'll be using next time.

The building is impressive, all angular and in the welcome sunshine of today really impressive.  Reality is The Crystal has been designed to be one of the most sustainable buildings in the world.  It is aiming for the most stringent standards for sustainable design and construction.

I couldn't wait to get inside, especially given that we'd walked past the motorbike and car that were on display just inside and both children were eager to get a closer look.  However probably more importantly because we were starving and wanted to have lunch in the cafe.  What a great find although I shouldn't  really publicise it as I'm thinking it a great place to hide away in.  A quiet little oasis of calm with a delicious offering of food (especially the cake table - oh my!), plenty of light streaming in due to the glassed frontage, and a view perfect for dreamers - looking out to the dock seeing the planes take off toward the building whilst the Emirates Air Line trundles past between.

After very carefully, in a way the Swiss would be proud, sorting out our recycling in respective bins we headed to reception to pick up our card key.  The entrance is free and you are given a card key which allows you to very cleverly track the multitude of learning facilities.  It's all very Star Trek.  First up though is the dome.  Not the Millennium Dome although the mere mention of a dome does conjure up negative thoughts of failure.

And yes we did walk up the stairs and enter through the door to sit inside that balloon shaped room and as we did we saw a rainbow of colours.

Outside before heading up the stairs you are already given the stark information:

"We would need five planets to live on rather than one if everyone consumed resources and generated CO2 at the same rate as the highest impact nations."

Inside you're given a six minute video which is seriously more than thought provoking.  It's stuff you know about already.  Facts that you're probably bored of reading.  It's scary.  It's reality.  It's information you need to be reminded about and it's a good foundation of knowledge for the rest of the exhibition.

The Crystal is for everyone who cares about creating a better future for our cities and enables dialogue about a shared sustainable future; how we live in cities, how we struggle with them, how we can make them more attractive, and balance environment, economy and quality of life.

Despite both children getting up to their usual mischief together I was determined they would walk away from the experience having learnt something valuable that could help them, help one another, help others.  We each took one child and whilst Patrik sat with Johan and watched in awe one of the many big screen videos, Emily and I worked our way through the test on how much water we waste.  A perfectly timed exercise because I've recently been explaining the importance of water, the need to look after it, and why.  So I was really pleased to see Emily fully engaging in the exercise and be shocked at just how much water is wasted by flushing the loo, or leaving the tap running whilst brushing her teeth.  Isn't it amazing.  I can say it a million times but it took this experiment once for her to have a light bulb moment and it stuck.  She's talked about it since.

I just wish more people took note of the above - in the developed nations we take water for granted.  In a throw away society where people believe we can just buy something else instead it is critical for people to remind themselves that we can never get back the water that we pollute.

The venue covers ten separate zones from water is life, to safe & sound.  You'll also find the following zones:

Healthy life: explore how cities will look after the young as well as the old
Clean & Green: Looking after the environment for the benefit of mankind
Future Life: Take a step into the future to see how your city could look
Forces of Change: How demographic, urbanisation and climate change impact us all
Go Electric: Smarter ways to use electricity more efficiently
Creating Cities: Decision-making, holistic urban planning and monitoring
Safe & Sound: Make our cities better places to live and work
Smart Buildings: Solutions to creating greener, more sustainable buildings
Keep Moving: Transport and infrastructure solutions

It's not a place where direction means you have to follow rule and stop and hold up a group of people behind.  It's designed in such a way that your viewing is fluid allowing you to move around choosing which boards, screens you wish to see.  Each one requires you to swipe your card to activate the key.  That key informs you of which zones you've visited.

The actual exhibition area is a mixture between London's Transport Museum and Duxford - clean, airy with plenty of things to see and do.  Here's a little of what I saw ...

It is a landmark building and the world's first centre dedicated to improving our knowledge of urban sustainability, which itself is among the most critically important global issues of the 21st century.  Especially given just how much of the World's population will be living in a city in decades to come.  It is believed that by 2050 70% of all humanity will live in urban areas.  To think that cities now consume about 75% of all the world's energy and emit around 80% of all greenhouse gases is pretty scary stuff for us as a growing generation and for our children who will be part of an almost unmanageable world population.

The Crystal is open Tuesday - Sunday 10am - 5pm

One Siemens Brothers Way
Royal Victoria Docks
London E16 1GB

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A trip up the Shard

Skyscrapers.  They're popping up everywhere in London.  I recall when I first lived on the Isle of Dogs; the Canary Wharf tower was just a few storeys high.  Then more recently across in the city there's been the Gherkin, the Pan Peninsula more closer to home and now the mother of them all - The Shard.

I sometimes wonder whether this whole desire to construct a tall building is just mans way of compensating for something else.  I mean are there any female architects of tall buildings anywhere in the world? Or would a woman simply design a mere modest home?

However before you question that, Aqua is the current tallest building designed by a women and is just 82 storeys high and stands in Chicago.  Interestingly it is a tower of ripples and attractive curves unlike a fabricated and glorified 1960s council block.

The Shard is however far from a block; hence its name, which was derived when the initial application was rejected due to the design resembling a shard of glass.

95% of the construction materials are recycled.  Not only is that an incentive for everyone to recycle their goods it makes me think of the building as more of a super-sized Blue Peter experiment.

A few facts:

1. Currently the tallest building in the UK
2. Currently the highest residences in Europe with the Penthouse 735ft high
3. It is 309.6 metres (1,016 ft) high
4. 15 levels make up the 'top' from viewing platform upward
5. Amazingly the construction took three years from start to finish in 2012

No matter how you look at it, the Shard looks impressive from any angle and especially so of a sunny day or at sunset.  From Canary Wharf it stands proud both from the open riverside and even sneaking from behind some of the apartment blocks on the west side of the Isle of Dogs.

To have tickets to go up the Shard on what has been the sunniest day of the year was like winning the lottery.  Only interestingly had I have won the lottery I still wouldn't have been able to compete with the Sultan of Brunei who as we speak is apparently in a bidding war for claiming the top floor for his pad.  The starting price was £60m however that figure has long been surpassed.

The closest you will get to experiencing life at the Shard is once the Shangri-La hotel opens in May.  With a mere seven stars the hotel including the all important spa will occupy the 34th to the 52nd floor.  The 31st to the 33rd floors will be restaurants and bars.  The first section are currently all bar one, vacant office floors and then the top section is soly for residential purposes.  Just ten exclusive residences each with a 360 degree view across London.  Each floor in the millions, some duplex apartments.  Why of course there's a bidding war on.  Why?  Because they can.

In the meantime, it's all about tourists (and locals like me) taking two and if you really want to - three - lifts to the top.  The 'top' is actually the shardy bit of the shard and is not accessible to the public and nor, interestingly is it not going to be the home of some wealthy individual.  Instead it is purely set aside for those daredevil workmen and we saw a couple today.

Due to the design, they have to secure themselves and then swing themselves out and around the exterior of the building making those inside looking out appear like goldfish.  Well somebody's got to clean the windows.

Whilst taking in the views ambient music is played constantly and in such a way you don't realise that is part of the reason you feel so incredibly relaxed.  It's like being in a different world.  People spotting without people walking past. That feeling.  Either way it is amazing.

It's quite difficult not to get trapped in to taking the same old photographs as everyone else.  To avoid the glare get your lens right up to the glass.  However be prepared to have some inner body reaction to either looking up, looking down, looking straight ahead, being close to the glass or generally in my case feeling rather vulnerable by simply standing on wooden slats for a floor.  All very disconcerting.

The weather was glorious and that may have been a contributing factor to us really enjoying ourselves. However one lucky couple really did enjoy themselves as they'd just got engaged at the viewing platform.  'Awwww' I hear you think.  'Well my height was bigger than your height' the one proposing in the Shard can say to the man proposing from the Eiffel Tower.

And if you do consider an engagement, or any other important event for that matter at the viewing platform, you can even buy a bottle of The Shard bubbly for the occasion.

Alternatively you can buy a pencil.  Like I did.

Anyhow, here are a few of my photographs from a trip up the Shard today.

The thought however that there will be at least two skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs of a very similar height does not however fill me with joy.  Much to the contrary.  Their proposed designs lack any imagination.

Despite that and my initial scepticism of the experience, wondering too whether the entry fee was ridiculous, I was really impressed with the Shard experience the minute I arrived.  It is really quite special and definitely worth it.

The staff are seriously friendly.  It's like being at the Olympics all over again.  Only this time you're up near the clouds, well certainly the smog.

Do go.  Hand over the cash closing your eyes.  Open them when you arrive at the viewing platform.

The Shard experience

The Shard

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Taking photographs of a Greenwich gem

Greenwich, the home of the meridian line, the Royal naval college not to mention the Cutty Sark, and the beautiful Greenwich Park, the theatre ... oh the list goes on.  There is also a rather beautiful church that has recently celebrated it's centenary.  St Alfege in Greenwich, and incredibly on a site where a church has been for nearly 1,000 years.

It really is quite understated, probably the reason why I've not ventured inside until last weekend.  Perhaps not in the same tourist league as those places mentioned above yet the church is steeped in history and deserves some recognition.

Ironically on the way home from taking Emily to the pantomime early in January the building looked so atmospheric I had to take a photograph using my phone to just try and capture it.

This is where I'm just going to head off on a tangent and talk about Lecaris who offer a number of digital camera courses.  I attended their three hour photo walk last week and whilst at first slightly sceptical and not sure what to expect thinking I might refresh my ailing technical skills, I came away with a lot more.

It's a very informal walk taking in a few local sights - the one I attended ironically started at St Alfege.

When being completely present it is possible to take in so much more.  The mind gets more creative naturally and you can see things that you would normally miss.  The idea is to not just look straight ahead but also up, down and not to mention close up.  Basically don't be afraid.  That's the beauty of digital cameras - you can always delete the frame or edit it when you get back.  Saying that of course there was the Smart Alec who did much better than everybody else.  Even his photographs were a lesson to the rest of us though.

Wandering around the grounds and inside the church to take specific photographs, and to capture the essence of it also makes you more aware of the subject, requires that you find out about the history too. It transpires that this once insignificant building across the road from the cinema is actually a hidden gem.

Looking around the cemetery there are many a gravestone that gives the impression of someone rather important being laid to rest in the grounds of the church.

St Alfedge has connections with many famous figures in British history including Henry VIII.  It is so associated with history that it is currently celebrating the centenary year of the martyrdom of Alfege (the Saint) which took place in 1012.  The story itself is fascinating.

The design of the church itself is quite angular and in shape rectangular in plan with a flat ceiling, built from a grant from the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches and completed in 1714.  Hawksmoor who was commissioned to design the new church was a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren.  So I guess that explains why there's more to it than meets the eye.

Step inside and instead of a rather bleak looking interior you will find quite elaborate detail balanced out by a rather serene atmosphere and an array of wooden textures.  The light falls through the stained glass windows and the rather grand chandelier provides a central burst.  You'll see ornate wrought iron set against a backdrop of cloth and in many cases dog eared items.  It's quite charming.

We were lucky enough to be snapping away when in came a pianist practising for one of the many piano recitals held at the church.  It was wonderful.  

It's quite surprising to think that the church was indeed damaged by fire during the Second World War, when incendiary devices became lodged in the roof.  Amazingly the organ console, which can still be seen today, was left intact.

However not only does the church offer the opportunity to worship, there are often opportunities to listen to some really talented musicians some of whom come from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  There are talks and recitals, and even concerts.  Most importantly there is also the obvious opportunity to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, take a few deep breaths and be at peace.

If you're in Greenwich, take a few moments and go venture inside. 

As for my photography ... I'm still practising ... work in progress!